SEO – What You Can Do

Practical SEO Advice for Beginners

What is SEO, and what can it do for your website?  Will it get you to the “top of Google”?  Do you need to be the “top of Google”?  There is a lot of conflicting information all over the web and in forum posts about what gets you to the first page in Google search results.

First off, SEO does NOT mean “top of Google”.  A website without SEO can get good results in Google, while a fully optimised site can be stuck on the bottom of Google’s results.  I’ll explain…

A little History of Web Search

The World Wide Web was created for particle physicists to publish the results of their experiments on the internet.  But unlike a piece of paper or a simple text file, some of the text could be “hypertext” – magical clickable text that would take you to another web page, somewhere on the internet.  Since then, of course, the web has exploded into singing-and-dancing multimedia experiences and web applications, but the world wide web still fulfills the same function it was invented for – publishing information.  That information could be your company brochure, your corporate accounts, or your dog’s new puppy photos.  It’s still information, and you’re publishing it.

The web quickly became bigger and bigger.  To organise it somewhat, people started making web pages that were simply directories of websites.  Some of the original web directories are still going, including DMOZ and Yahoo!  The first search engines available were in-house ones for searching those directories.

Later came the dedicated Search Engine websites.  These are programs that every so often, try out every link on the whole world wide web, and the directories are updated automatically.  The first web search engines like Altavista simply counted words.  Google, on the other hand, has an near-exact copy of the entire web in it’s databases.  Amazing, considering the billions of websites out there…

Why Are Google So Huge?

The creators of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, wanted a search engine that would be relevant to humans.  Not merely satisfied with counting words, they included a count of how many links a website had to it from other web pages.  At the time, nearly every website had “what’s cool” and “what’s hot” links to their favourite websites.  By measuring how many people linked to a website, they could logically guess which websites out there were relevant, or popular, and serve these at the top of their search results.

Ok, a search engine is handy, but those servers and staff aren’t free, so they needed a way to make money off this stuff.  So they invented sponsored listings.  They made billions.  That’s the story of Google.  But the point is, they wouldn’t have made those billions if they weren’t a popular search engine – nobody would use them, so nobody would pay them for sponsored ads.  On the other hand, they wouldn’t be a popular search engine unless they were were returning results based firmly on what people want.

Unfortunately, a search engine that simply counts words and inbound links can be fooled.  It’s possible to create a thousand websites stuffed with words and links to your site.  Google’s income is based on producing relevant results, so the people at Google are constantly on the look out for the latest tricks.  In some cases, taking those pages out of their results altogether.  These tricks are not SEO.  If you’re hiring an SEO expert for your company, make sure they don’t engage in that stuff.  It might work for a few weeks but then you’re kicked out of Googleland.  Don’t bother.

So really, SEO is simply about serving relevant content.  Beware of technical “tricks” that will “fool” a search engine into thinking your information is important.  Use techniques that will actually make your website important.  Optimise your site to the people who will visit your site, and the search engines.  I’ll talk about the technical side first.  These aren’t SEO tricks that fool a search engine, they are technical design standards that make it easy for search engines to actually find your content.

Optimise for Search Engines

Google doesn’t care about how nicely designed your site is, or whether you’ve created the ultimate user experience.  Google simply reads the text.  So, if your content is hidden in a Flash site or on image files, Google won’t see it.  Some javascript techniques that serve content are friendly for search engines, some aren’t and make it hard for Google to read.  Also, if your PHP files require strange variables sent to them, without a nice link that Google can “click” on, they won’t be served.

A good way to think about it is to imagine Google as a blind person using a text-only braille browser or something, who might be interested in your website.  If you want to test your website, check it out on a text-only browser such as Lynx.  If you can’t get to the content, or it feels irrelevant, you’re not optimised.  Growing your site helps too – a site with new information on it is more relevant than one that’s been the same for a year.  That’s not to say that things like Javascript and Ajax can’t be used to make an efficient site, it’s just that you need to be careful which content is served in which way.  You don’t really need to optimise a private, logged-in web app (apart from browser checking!) but the site around it with the “About Our Web App” and front page copy etc, should be well written and to the correct technical standards.  A web app like a public music database should be optimised.  Then everything can be there, waiting in Google for your visitors to find you with.

If your website is large, handled by an incomplete CMS or simply built in a complicated way (using javascript to call PHP variables), then Google might have some difficulty.  You might have some pages served by form entry. You might want a mobile site with duplicated copy (which Google hates!).  In that case then, you will want to include a sitemap file.  This is an XML file with a nice map of your site that Google can follow.  To avoid showing duplicate pages, you can also use a robots file.  This is a text file that asks Google (and other polite search engines) to please not go to some page or section of your site.

Just make your site to ordinary web standards and it should work.

Optimise for People

Google will always make it’s search engine relevant for humans to find the information they’re looking for.  So make your information relevant.  All the search engine optimisation in the world won’t make a difference to that.

Say you invent a new recipe for baked beans pie.  Imagine now, that you break all the SEO rules – you put it in as an image, with no metatags, “alt” text or anything.  Now imagine the world goes nuts for your recipe.  People love it.  They share your address on Facebook, Reddit, and all over the web.  What’s going to happen when people search for “baked beans pie” in Google?  It’ll be there.  At the top, or near the top.  If it isn’t at the top of Google, maybe the feature on the “Famous Pies” website will be at the top.  Either way, the relevant information made it.

If your site isn’t at the top of Google, look at who is on top.  If your online shop sells instant pie, and you search for “instant pie” in Google, or even “delicious pies”, look at the websites at the top.  What makes them more relevant?  Chances are they have a larger site, with more information, probably a blog with recipe ideas and latest news from the pie industry.  If their website is worse than yours with only a crappy picture and a PayPal order form, and they’re still top of Google, it might be a good idea to actually try one of their pies!  Maybe yours need more mustard…

Think about what your customers actually want.  Give it to them.  And don’t try putting lipstick on a pig.  A well designed site, with all the best SEO on it will fail if the actual content or product is rubbish.

Also, there are technical things you can do.  Put all your content inside proper HTML tags, use a well written Description metatag (so people can read in their Google results), and if the site is large, a small “breadcrumbs” line can be used.  A little row of links that tells you you’re in, for example:-

>shop>mens>trousers>jeans“.

It just saves all that clicking and searching…

All the Graphic Design rules apply here too.  Colours, space, font and layout should all go towards making your information human-optimised, but that’s a whole other subject.

External Marketing

You’ve made yourself a kick-ass site, it’s been optimised for search engines and still no hits.  It’s even got a blog and articles are being written all the time!  Still no hits!  Why?  Maybe nobody knows about it…

There are a million ways to actually market your amazing SEO’ed site that have nothing to do with the actual site’s development or design.  Google likes inbound links.  You’ll need to make and encourage and beg for as many of those you can.  However, don’t be sneaky.  Google can only be fooled for so long before it gets angry and throws you to the bottom of the world.  So avoid pointless-seeming affiliate schemes, advertising pyramids and all that junk.

Find the people online who like your product.  If you sell sports goods, find sports forums.  Join as a forum person, not as a spammer.  Converse, make friends, give and ask for advice.  Lots of forums let you link in your signature.  You can shamelessly promote yourself everywhere without being spammy this way.  Say somebody goes on the forum and says, “My feet hurt when I run” and you know all about pronating and supanating and all that jazz, so you say “You should buy McDinkin’s corrective running shoes.  Our customers go nuts for them.  You can find them in your local sports shops or online.  Don’t buy the blue ones, they smell!  I know, I’m a sports shop owner…”

And quietly sitting there in your post signature is a link to your shop.  Suddenly you look like an expert, your advice is relevant and you’re more likely to be bought from than if you just say “buy our corrective running shoes!  £99 a pair – Free delivery!!!”

You can see the difference.  The first way is relevant, the second is spammy.  So people like your post, it becomes popular, people link to it, and it slides a little bit up Google for searches such as “running shoes” and “sports equipment”.

You could then take the opportunity to write a blog post for your site, giving advice on all sorts of running shoes stuff you’re knowledgeable in.  You can add to your forum “I wrote up an explanation in a bit more details, take a look… [link]”

Marketing itself is a whole other subject than SEO.  SEO is a set of techniques that help search engines assess your relevance to the world.  You will still need to use all the other marketing techniques to hand, such as ad campaigns, posters, and sponsorship.  Not every website even needs to be “top of Google”.  Treating your customers well and expanding through word-of-mouth is still viable and incredibly effective, even in a world of viral video camaigns and instant e-commerce.  If your business is based around a person-to-person model, such as design or therapy, you’ll find you get recommended if you give a bit extra.

It’s a good idea to focus on your web statistics, available from Google Analytics.  This will tell you what’s popular on your site, and what people are searching for.  Say you’re a digital artist.  You take a few photos of textures like wood and stone, and put them up on your site.   If your analytics say people are finding you by searching for “stone textures” then you might want to add some more, or a downloadable Zip pack – this way, the relevance of your site increases to the world.

To Finalise…

Make your site relevant and accessible to humans, with well written content and effective graphic work.  Design it so it talks to Google well, with meta-tags, sitemap XML and proper semantic markup.  Grow it with a blog or CMS, giving good advice and letting your fans know about new products and competitions.  That’s it really.  That’s all SEO is.  Anything else is marketing:-

To market your site, spread the word around the web (and of course, the real world!), being relevant and friendly, not in-your-face and spammy.  Run an ad campaign. Watch how people find your site.  Adapt accordingly, with articles and features.  Facebook and Twitter help, as well as the industry-specific social networks such as Deviantart, Linkdin, and Flickr.  Put your services on Craigslist and Gumtree.  Radio plugs, press releases, fly-posting, leaflets on car winscreens, cold-calling, door-to-door…  You know what to do!

And, most importantly, have a great product at the other end…

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Free Music Making Software

My favourite kind of software is freeware.  My favourite freeware is community driven open source software.  My favourite open source software is libre software, also known as Free Software.

Saying that, my favourite kinds of Free, Libre, Open Source software (also called FLOSS) is that kind that works on the “Big Three” operating systems, Windows, OS/X, and Linux.  When I stop working with other operating systems, I’ll just be a GNU/Linux head.  Until that day comes, I like the fact that the software I use can be installed on any computer I find working, anywhere!

So take advantage as I give you some fun software to play with.  Nothing gives you a feel for music like actually mucking around with it, and you can be sure that what I’m giving you here should work on your computer.  I’ll also list some other fun stuff to get your teeth into…

Cross-Platform FLOSS

These software products are available for Windows, OS/X and Linux.  They are all free to download.  If you’re just learning music (with the pages on my blog, for instance!) and you don’t have an instrument, start with a simple synth.  If you have a “real” instrument, you can start messing about with recording software.

Simple Midi and Stuff

Get the following software and start mucking about with it.  Some of it works right out of the box, others you might have to go online and look for solutions.

Virtual Midi Piano Keyboard

This is one of my favourites.  For the technically minded, VMPK is a virtual midi controller with pitch-bend.  For the absolute noob, VMPK is a funky musical instrument that you can play with a mouse or your PC’s keyboard.

VMPK Screenshot

VMPK running on Windows XP

It’s a nice piano, capable of chords.  Don’t expect it to do more than three notes at once if you’re controlling it with the keyboard, but you can do more with the mouse.  This is simply a limitation of your PC’s keyboard.  I don’t know how it would work on a multi-touch screen, but I bet it’s fun!

It’s fine for learning to mess about with music, for trying out chords and tunes.  Play with the pitch-bend…

To set up VMPK you need to install it, and hook it up to a synth.  If you’re on Windows, you should already have the Microsoft GS Wavetable Synth installed.  That’s got a decent bunch of simple starter instruments to play with.  If you’re on Linux or OS/X, you can install QSynth.  QSynth is a midi synth.  You will need instrument patches, or SoundFont (SF2) files installed.  You can pick some free ones up at ZenVoid’s free patch site.

Aria Maestosa

Once you’ve had a plinkle around on your piano, and found your way around, you might want to start composing, or noting down your musical ideas.  You don’t need to spend two years learning all the dots and squiggles of music notation just yet.  Aria Maestosa is a free midi editor, based around the concept of a piano-roll.  Again, you’ll need a software synth like QSynth if you want to play stuff back as you’re composing, but you can also just edit a file, export to midi and stick it right on your phone as a midi ringtone.

Maestosa gives you musical score, guitar tab and piano-roll as inputs, so it’s great for learning music from tab or score.

Recording Software

If you’re learning on a real instrument, like a piano or guitar, you’ll do well with some recording software.  A cheap, simple PC mic can be plenty to start with, but if you want to take recording seriously you should invest in an external soundcard and a decent microphone.  For learning and noting down your musical ideas, a PC mic is fine.  Experiment with the mic, trying it out in different places to get the best sound.

Audacity

Audacity is a multitrack recording studio.  It’s seriously simple.  Record a track, record another, and if they don’t match up, click and drag.  Perfect.  Audacity also comes with a bunch of mastering effects, like reverb and wa-wa.  It enables you to slow down or speed up a tune without changing the pitch, and transpose whole tunes without altering the tempo.  Audacity can generate white noise, click tracks and simple sine waves, so it’s possible to create a whole tune using all of Audacity’s effects and sounds, although that would be very time consuming (good to get to know your effects, though!)

Once you get used to recording in general, you might find it easier to work with my next bit of software.

Audacity Screenshot

Audacity on XP

Traverso

Another recording program, Traverso is super fast and, once you get the hang of the keyboard controls, very efficient.  It’s also colourful and pleasant to work with.  Between Traverso and Audacity, you’ll have a top-notch recording and mastering suite with all the bells and whistles.  The only limitations will be your hardware, skills, and imagination.  Which will all improve over time anyway, if you take it seriously!

Traverso Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW) employs all sorts of tricks to keep your CPU from being overworked while mixing tracks, and can burn CD’s.  Effects can be applied to groups of tracks.  Even if you’re only learning to sing, it’s great to be able to hear back your stuff and mix and master it.  Try singing the different parts of a barbershop tune to get practise…

Sample Tracking

I’m featuring sample trackers because I like ’em.  Tracking has been around for a long time.  Early video game music was mostly tracker-based.  But what is this stuff?  Why is it cool?

Tracking started in the 80’s and is still done by highly acclaimed contemporary recording artists.  You take a sample of a musical instrument, say a violin.  You make it loopable.  You program the tracker to play it back on the beat, at a certain volume.  You can make other notes in the scale by playing your sample faster or slower.  That’s it, really.  Oh yes, and you program the things in Hexadecimal notation.

Ok, it’s a learning curve, but worth it.  Some of the modern trackers can handle VST plugins and work with midi, plus what they lack in graphical interface they make up for in efficiency.  Once you get the hang of it, check out Jeskola Buzz and Buzztard to see how crazy trackers can get!

Hex isn’t that difficult when you get the hang of it…

Milky Tracker

The first tracker I’m going to mention is Milky Tracker.  This is a great place to start learning.  It’s a clone of Fast Tracker II, an old DOS tracker.  There is a huge community of FT2 users and a great mix of YouTube videos with tracker music.  Tracker song files are called Modules, and contain all the samples and the commands of when and how to play the samples.  Download some FT2 and MilkyTracker MOD files and see what it’s capable of!

Schism Tracker

Schism Tracker is a free clone of Impulse Tracker from the 90’s.  It’s a bit more modern than Milky Tracker, but not by much.  An advantage of using old but updated software like this is that it runs like a dream.  Unlike the larger audio workstations, Schism won’t take up much RAM or CPU.  Schism comes with a few effects to get your music sounding more professional.  Check out YouTube for songs and tutorials.  Or better yet, download an IT file (Schism works best with old Impulse Tracker songs) and play it, or mess around with it to see how it works.

Schism Tracker Screenshot

Schism Tracker Running on WinXP

Karaoke Software!

It’s good to play an instrument.  It would be great if there were an instrument you could practise all the time, that needed no hands and you could play in the shower.  Luckily, most humans have an instrument like this built in.  Singing is probably the best thing you can do to get yourself familiar with harmonies and scales and immersing yourself in music that you love.  Having fun making loud noises is what humans do, so have fun and make loud noises!

UltraStar Deluxe

Did you ever play SingStar on the Playstation?  Well UltraStar Deluxe is pretty much a free tribute to that program.  For the uninitiated, it’s a karaoke game that scores you on the pitch and rhythm of your playing.  I know, it’s just for fun, but well, it is fun…

Musical Composition

As you get better at music, you’ll want to start tackling large tunes.  Maestosa, above, is a good way to start, but if you’d like to be musically literate, you should check out some software that will help you compose complicated songs.

MuseScore

This is a very sophisticated notation editor.  It comes with the FluidSynth installed with it, so you just run it and play.  MuseScore can import midi files to help you learn to read and write music, or it can help you compose when you get the hang of that side of things for yourself.  MuseScore can export to midi and to PDF, so you can download a midi file and get the sheet music in front of you while you play along, or you can change the notes around and save.

MuseScore Screenshot

MuseScore on Windows XP

Lilypond

This is very specific, and basic software that you probably won’t need, but if you want to self-publish your music, or get orchestras to play it, you’ll want your sheet music to look nice.  That’s all Lilypond does.  Makes good looking PDF’s of sheet music.  Following their editing language, you’ll be able to create professional looking sheet music and tablature.  Everything is taken care of, from the music fonts to the spacing, with all the nuances of modern music (and a lot of historical music) can be expressed.   You can export MuseScore files in Lilypond format, but it doesn’t hurt to learn their editing language when you start writing music for yourself.

Impro-Visor

If the technicalities of writing complicated pieces is still a long way off, you might want to just note down the chords and basic melody you like to jam around, like a Jazz lead-sheet.  That’s what Impro-Visor‘s for.  It’s good for guitar solos and for mapping out song structures, even if you’re not into Jazz.  A lot of composers use lead sheets to lay out their initial ideas.  Anyway, if you’re into jamming around, it can be a great way to write your songs down.

TuxGuitar

Maybe it’s guitar you’re learning.  TuxGuitar gives you a clear interface with score and tab editor, with multitracking capabilities.  Now you can save and share all your riffs and solos.  The interface is a little bit cleaner than Maestosa, and not as complex as MuseScore, so if you’re just starting out with guitar, it’s less of a hassle to get going with.

DJ Software

Music theory these days doesn’t just include scales, harmony, melody and rhythm and all that stuff.  Nowadays we have beatmatching, crossfading, scratching and all that malarkey.   Learning to DJ is one of the best ways of getting familiar with the structure of songs, expecially dance tunes.

Mixxx

Mixxx is a free, open source mixing program.  Because   Mixxx works with midi DJ controllers so if you get good at mixing tunes, you’ll want to buy yourself one.  Although i knew a wedding DJ who only worked from laptop.  If he had any requests he didn’t have in his collection, he’d be straight onto iTunes, and the song would be seamlessly mixed in with the set. So you don’t need a controller.  For greater control for things like scratching, and purely for performance purposes or convenience, a controller is the best option.  On top of that, get a good external soundcard and you have all you need to play banging raves…

A Final Thought

There is better, more sophisticated Free Software out there.  Most of it’s for GNU/Linux systems.  Ardour and Rosegarden are pure Linux, as is MusE. although OS/X users can use Ardour, I am told.  So I strongly suggest you start with a good distribution of Linux and try out what’s on offer.  LMMS is a very sophisticated music station, but is only really built for Windows and Linux.  But then you Apple people have GarageBand so why complain?  Of course, there are some amazing non-free software titles out there, but I’m not bothered about them.  With one little exception…

Say you’re into tracking, and are familiar with the interface, but you want a top-notch professional sounding piece of software and you don’t want to pay?  If you’re on Windows, dowload Jeskola Buzz.  It’s freeware, just not open source.  Lots of open source plugins have been made for it though, like synths and effects, so it’s freely expandable.  Also, there is a Free Software clone call Buzztard which, if you use only the open source plugins with Buzz, is more or less compatible.  So I’m including it here as a sort of grey area piece because I love it so much, and songs you make on it have the potential to be cross-platform.  If you’re considering shifting to GNU/Linux and can’t wait until then to get stuck in then Buzz is your best bet.

If you’re not into tracking, and are used to pianos and pianorolls, LMMS is not as expandable or sophisticated, but still a beautiful piece of kit.  Look for LADSPA plugins (like VST, only free from restrictions) to expand it with, although it comes with a staggering amount of samples and synth presets loaded.  Some cool demo songs too.

Finally!

That’s my recommendations for beginner musicians to start with.  It doesn’t matter what kind of PC you use, you should still be able to start composing music that you’ll like.  All the software is free to download, so there’s nothing stopping you!